Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Bellwether Mayor And A Chamber In Sync

It is a positive sign for Durham’s continued economic prosperity that 60% of adult residents believe the community is a good place for gay and lesbian people to live compared to 27% who disagree.  Most telling perhaps, is that a full third feel strongly on this matter according to the annual scientific poll commissioned by the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB.)

Further evidence appeared last week when the Board of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, an advocacy organization for business voted unanimously to oppose Amendment One, a ballot proposition to insert a ban on same-sex marriages in the State Constitution.chamber logo

The Chamber was on safe footing.  By my count among friends who own businesses, the reaction has been overwhelmingly in favor of opposition and a statewide opinion poll taken during the time of the Chamber’s deliberations revealed that 6 out of 10 North Carolinians also oppose the amendment.

Wily proponents of the ban pushed it onto a primary election ballot next month so it will all come down to voter turnout, but I agree with House Speaker Thom Tillis that even if approved, such an amendment will be repealed by the demographic and psychographic shifts already well under way in North Carolina where nearly 4 in 10 residents already support the rights of gay citizens to be married.

Sentiment wasn’t always so clear to read.  When I moved to Durham, one of the state’s most progressive communities, in 1989, Mayor Wib Gulley had barely survived an effort a few months earlier to have him recalled when a petition requiring 13,000 signatures fell short by a thousand.

Issuing an “Anti-Discrimination Week” proclamation while speaking highly of gay citizens had also resulted in Gulley being black-balled from membership in the big Downtown Rotary Club.  Much of the uproar had been fueled by the organization of a former WRAL broadcaster down in Raleigh, then US Senator Jesse Helms.

For several years I avoided rejoining Rotary until it was clear that the organization’s sentiment had become more reflective of Durham values and I eventually served as that club’s president.  Wib Gulley was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term as mayor and went on to serve several terms as a State Senator.

Coincidentally, he is the current chair of the governing board of the organization that I came here to lead as the spearhead for visitor centric (demand-side) economic and cultural development organization and from which I retired several years ago.  Wib was mayor  back when DCVB was first chartered as a provision to state legislation.

The Durham Chamber works the supply-side of economic development, thanks in part to a grant from Durham County.  While I continue to give it grief for a regressive stand it took and still promotes that undermines Durham’s popular ordinance banning billboards, that stands out as an anomaly and probably would have never happened today.

The Durham Chamber in my experience has always been one of the most progressive organizations of that type. By the time I moved to Durham, it had been responsible for populating Research Triangle Park here in partnership with the Research Triangle Foundation.

After acceding to the Durham ban on outdoor billboards in ‘84, according to public documents, the Chamber openly supported a zoning overlay turning the portion of I 40 that passes through through Durham into a sense of place best practice.

In 1987, in another forward-thinking move, the Chamber supported creation of an independent, official community-destination marketing organization for Durham for which I was recruited as chief executive.  A decade later, it joined with DCVB to jointly create a best practice collaboration for placed-driven communication.

It isn’t always easy for any chamber to reflect its community’s values.  Who can ever forget Marvin Barnes’ impassioned support here for school merger when he was board chair of the Chamber.

I also recall being in the room when the Chamber’s board, then, as often the case, laden with non-residents, came very close to opposing bonds for affordable housing until word arrived just prior to the vote that Bob Ingram, then-head of GlaxoSmithKline supported the bonds.

Some at the Chamber groused when Durham established its vaunted school of the arts magnet school, an elaboration on the nationally-acclaimed NC School of Science and Math that had already been established in Durham in 1980 with Chamber support.

But the Chamber quickly acceded when it was revealed how much better many students at every socio-economic level do, even in subjects such as science and math, with art as a lens, something demonstrated over and over by the legendary Joe Liles when he taught art classes at the NCSSM for 28 years.

And the Chamber’s progressiveness isn’t limited to its positions on issues. Examples are the joint official publication created with DCVB to tell Durham’s story and aid both visitors including those who become  newcomers.

I spotted another Chamber innovation being created in the storefront nook of Beyu, the downtown cafe where I often buy bulk coffee beans, a collaboration with DDI, our downtown advocacy organization called The Smoffice.

Overall I’ve always been impressed by our community’s Chamber, but at no time more than with its opposition last week to Amendment One.

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